Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fruit Hawkers

Img46.pngWhite canopies, beat-up six-foot tables, the twang of a blue-grassish foursome playing “Man of Constant Sorrow,” the soft scent of lavender wafting through the stalls and a bounty of fresh colorful fruits and vegetables greet me each Sunday morning at the Ojai Farmers Market. I will never forget my first visit to the market nearly 7 years ago. A moment that, I now realize, brought about an awakening, a transformation really with that first introduction to a philosophy of food blended with the social context of all that is Ojai.
My husband, Bill, and I had just relocated from San Diego. Like most inhabitants of suburbia, we shopped at chain grocery stores and consumed an indecent amount of “healthy” take-out in those days.

We drove to the market that late summer day years ago. Along the way, we caught our first glimpses of the local populace. A man jogging with a leashed llama in each hand. Another man with a long beard, dreadlocks and a sarong picking lavender on the side of the road. We later saw him in front of the market with the lavender buds in his hair and playing a ukulele. I’m sure we laughed and rolled our eyes then.

I remember arriving at the market’s parking lot, wondering what all the hustle and bustle was about and being confused by all the people just walking out in front of passing cars on Matilija Street. I’m sure I said something sarcastic like, “Jeeze, these people must really want their sprouts!” I quickly learned that pedestrians not only have the right of way, but in Ojai they are darn right indignant about taking it.

 We eavesdropped as buyers and sellers spoke with a familiar and friendly tone while they conducted their business. A bearded man in a Che Guevara t-shirt asked a farmer something about getting the kids enrolled in kindergarten. A couple dollar bills were exchanged in return for two handfuls of oranges. I looked over the crates of fruit and found a box of what appeared to me at the time to be over-sized grapefruit, and that’s when I had my first introduction to a pummelo. The farmer offered me a sample - so fragrant, with a hint of sweetness. Bill asked if I planned to take it bowling!

Then I saw Bill with his eyes popping out of his head looking at the next booth over. A bald twenty-something young woman, seemingly due to give birth any moment, proudly displaying her bare protruding basketball of a belly, the button of which was jewel-adorned, was busy selling her crop of lettuces. And a bare-chested tattooed young man next to her with a bright orange and red knit cap played a 5’ tube-like instrument called a didgeridoo. I think I chided Bill by saying something like, “I like her belly button ring, I want one just like it!”

We proceeded with a bit of trepidation and quietly groped and fondled a variety of fresh produce while taking in the Ojai culture. It didn’t take long for us to realize that what ends up in the grocery bag is much more than just fruits and vegetables.

This was about the time when Bill was becoming increasingly interested in cooking. That day, he bought purple potatoes, rosemary, tomatoes, avocadoes and asparagus. That week, I dined like a queen, and have every week since. The market inspired and pots and pans that gathered only dust now proudly take a weekly beating.

Since then, we’ve made friends and acquaintances, and each Sunday we bump into them at the market and get caught up. When I see Patrick playing “You Are My Sunshine” with the Iron Mountain Boys, we exchange hellos. The soap lady knows my favorites: Goat Milk and Honey and Rosemary Mint. And we talk with the people who just picked our produce. How profound is that? We know the people who grow what we eat.

If a few weeks go by and I haven’t been to the market, I get sort of “bunchy,” a yearning really, to return. Not just for the food, but for the comfort of being one with my community. And for the thrill of assuming the right of way in front of a charging SUV on Matilija Street!

Photos by Brooks Smothers

Published Summer 2006 in the Ojai Valley Visitors Guide.